Marilyn Minter’s Subversive Beauty

Orange Crush. Marilyn Minter, 2009. Enamel on metal, 108 x 180 inches.Orange Crush. Marilyn Minter, 2009. Enamel on metal, 108 x 180 inches.

What would happen if you ate all your makeup – and it was laced with LSD? What if piling on the trappings of glamour and beauty could give you an ice cream headache?

In the work of painter and photographer Marilyn Minter, beauty goes to a place where it’s not sure to be fun anymore, to that queasy sensation of one funhouse ride too many. The artist began her exploration of beauty and decay in art school, taking photographs of her mother, whose own beauty was ravaged by years of drug abuse and neglect.

A realist painter by talent, Minter aroused the ire of art world critics when she took on hardcore pornographic imagery in the late 1980’s. “Nobody has politically correct fantasies,” she told an audience at the School of Visual Arts a few weeks ago. But even in politically correct times, “It’s hard for women – especially young women – to own the means of sexual production. It’s hard even now.”

The abuse (and neglect) she took from the art world could have killed her career – maybe it did – but she started looking further into glamour, working with drag queens and makeup. She started taking on beauty imagery, “Exactly what’s out there, but changed. In beauty images, you’ll have a mouth holding an egg. In my pictures, the egg breaks.”

And her fashion imagery is somewhat like pornographic imagery: like pornography, fashion imagery condenses female desire and imagery into a uniform expression of commerce. But in Minter’s painting (and photographs), the extra fluids are there – the “hot mess” is apparent:

Cheshire (Wangechi Mutu). Marilyn Minter, 2011. Enamel on metal, 60 x 96 inches.
Cheshire (Wangechi Mutu). Marilyn Minter, 2011. Enamel on metal, 60 x 96 inches.

It’s a moment. But not the perfect moment of desire: it’s a moment after desire, when the consumer has gotten everything she wanted and more, and there’s nowhere left to go but down. As in buying the perfect shoes (these are Jimmy Choos) and having the perfect pedicure, only to lose all that perfection in the first splash of dirty water:

Heavy Metal. Marilyn Minter, 2011, enamel on metal, 108 x 180 inches.
Heavy Metal. Marilyn Minter, 2011, enamel on metal, 108 x 180 inches.

Or try a new eyeshadow – but still, there’s a little pimple. Marilyn Minter’s work is about what’s really there, or what would be without airbrushing. And she loves freckles, which until recently were never seen in beauty photographs (and are still seen in only stylized contexts.)

Blue Poles. Marilyn Minter, 20017. Enamel on metal, 60 x 72 inches
Blue Poles. Marilyn Minter, 20017. Enamel on metal, 60 x 72 inches

Sometimes she’ll go further into abstraction, adding layers of glass and vaseline. And 60-80 layers of Photoshop:

Smear. Marilyn Minter, 2012. Enamel on metal, 48 x 64 inches.
Smear. Marilyn Minter, 2012. Enamel on metal, 48 x 64 inches.

One of her painting assistants is also a grafitti artist. So why not explore what might happen to imagery when it’s left out to decay? (at least in art’s imagination…)

Public Eye. Marilyn Minter, 2013, enamel on metal, 120 x 180 inches.
Public Eye. Marilyn Minter, 2013, enamel on metal, 120 x 180 inches.

Going back to her fascination with desire and imagery, and a desire to own the means of sexual image production, Minter paid several models to grow their pubic hair in. And abstracted it into glamour:

Burning Bush. Marilyn Minter, 2013, Enamel on metal, 48 x 42 inches.
Burning Bush. Marilyn Minter, 2013, Enamel on metal, 48 x 42 inches.

Which is not surprising, since Marilyn Minter is in her artistic prime. Being in posession of both a viable artistic voice and the resources to support it (MAC Cosmetics, Jimmy Choo, and Madonna have all sponsored projects) she’s playing by her own rules. Next on her list is a series of beautiful older women – with their wrinkles left in.

I’ll leave you with a video: asked what models she wanted for a MAC campaign, Minter asked for the one “with the longest tongue”. And she had the model lick various kinds of candy off glass, resulting in images and video that are both beautiful and grotesque:

 Marilyn Minter Website.

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